We are in Karditsa, a fairly big town compared with the small letters on our map. There’s a one-way system which we try to ignore. We are looking for road signs out of the town. It takes a few moments to decipher the Greek lettering. Every town around here has a sign pointing towards Athens. This is not the road we want. We want the road to Kedros. Kedros is a little village marked on our map on the edge of the plain where our road heads back into the mountains. In the suburbs we ask a man with a van. Kedros? He points us back in the direction we have come. We cycle back and ask a young woman. Kedros? Along here, she says, then turn left. She points east. We have to go south west on our map. Is she right? We ask at a café. Kedros? Kedros? A man nearby speaks English, but quickly says “I’m not from here!” Instead we ask for another village en route, Kelifornia, this time. Now we seem to get an answer that makes sense, with clear instructions. It’s only later that we learn from our dictionary that the word Kedro means centre.
Earlier in the day we had cycled past an old Ottoman mosque in Trikala. It had been restored and used for an exhibition of local archaeological finds. The man at the door didn’t seem too disappointed we were not interested in the Greek-only display. But we could tell he wanted to talk to someone. He must’ve been bored. He wittered on in pidgin English about the possible finding of Alexander’s tomb, about the immigrants in Athens, about Manchester United. We bid him farewell as soon as we could in our pidgin English.
We have our lunch in the little square in Kedros. The place is dead. Siesta dead. At around 4ish two drunks come over to talk and buffoon. Albanian farmworkers. They point out another man to us – from Pakistan. The Pakistani obviously doesn’t want to spend any time with the drunks and neither do we, so we hustle off and start our climb up a side valley, stopping on a crest of cleared land next to a fenced-off field, above the road. Not a house to be seen. Goat bells tinkling in the distance. When we start cooking a dog barks somewhere.
It takes us a couple of days to climb through the mountains, past several villages, most of which are below the road, and into a pine tree-filled valley before cresting a ridge that leads us to a big peak above the town of Karpenissi. We skirt below the mountain at a decent height – wonderful views eastwards and northwards back the way we have come. The road has been quiet and slow going. We have taken to listening to music on long climbs to ease the monotony of pedalling in our lowest gears. The music makes a big difference. We enjoy the views much more. We learn that slow music is fine for this kind of cycling. I had started out listening to Northern Soul, but suddenly found myself cycling harder than I could or should, heart pumping, muscles straining, trying to keep up with the beat, going all Tommy Simpson. I imagined myself collapsed on the side of the road, hands still gripping the handlebars, to the strains of Kim Weston warbling You Hit Me Where It Hurt Me. No, a nice bit of Bill Evans can do the job a lot better.
Sitting in Karpenissi after lunch a man from a nearby house comes to greet us. A retired teacher, he brings us apples, chocolates and some inedible pastry things which I struggle gainfully to chew through while Gayle gets the small-talk chores. We continue southwards and alarmingly downwards into a narrow pretty valley that soon becomes a desert rocky gorge. The descent is alarming because we should be going up to a high pass. We drift downhill knowing the climb will be even greater. But nothing prepares us for the gradient. The minute we cross a bridge we know we’ve reached our low point, altitude-wise. The valley is still gorge-like and unpromising for camping until we find an overgrown track leading up to a landslide area above the road. Not a promising pitch for the tent, but the landslide looks old, and we are absolutely knackered. The tent just fits. In the night the moon rises early, still waxing, but bright enough to cast magical shadows.
Sunday morning we awake to pilgrims walking along the road below. They are on the way to the monastery at Proussos. Something’s up, because the traffic is heavier with local tourists. It must be a festival at the monastery. The road continues to be steep. It’s a hard thing starting the day in your lowest gear and knowing there’s still a long way to the top. We slowly reach the village, and pass the monastery tucked away below the road in the cliffside. Around the village fountain are a string of busy cafes. Cars line the narrow village streets. We continue slogging our way uphill, around impossibly-cambered bends that brings Laos to mind and tears to my eyes. There is a steady stream of nervous looking drivers passing in both directions, also struggling with the steep gradients, the blind hairpins, the sharp drop-offs. We eek our way beyond all the houses and into a forest of pine trees. For some stretches we get off and push. It comes as a relief to tired muscles. I can push almost as fast as cycling, but then my arms tire even quicker. Finally, an almost imperceptible change in the gradient, and a rush of adrenaline sees us up the gears and zoom the final stretch to the pass. There’s an archway of flowers, a fanfare, crowds applaud our arrival and we are showered in champagne. No, this is just a nitrogen narcotic-induced hallucination. There’s a tiny shrine, with a few iconostases, and two bottles of unopened water. We drink one – we’re gasping – and float euphorically down the other side, finally coming to a stop at a scruffy village health centre where we have lunch, wash our clothes and take a stand-up wash by a sink that is open to the world but not overlooked. All quite daring stuff. On reviewing our guide book which describes the route we have just taken the words “spectacular if tortuous” leap out. And this was written by someone who was certainly in a car.
The descent to the coast is not really a descent at all. The next day we find ourselves going down, up, down, up, up, up, and up then down. At some point we get caught in a heavy shower that soaks us. An hour later we’re sweating again and almost dried out. Once we have fresh food supplies, we don’t worry about where we get to, and we stop short in some olive groves far from the next village. The next day we finally arrive at the Gulf of Corinth, and look over the water to the Peloponnese. There’s a huge suspension bridge crossing the gap, but we opt for the free ferry instead and head eastwards along the northern shore of the Peloponnese. There’s a new highway parallel to the old road, which dips and climbs and is quite narrow. We find ourselves racing along because there are too many trucks on the old road, avoiding the tolls on the new one. It’s madness. We barrel through village after village, cringing each time a tanker cruises past us in the face of oncoming traffic. The only interlude we have is when we spot a cyclist in a bus shelter reading a book. We stop to say hello to this old Austrian man who tells us he sold his house nine years ago and has been cycling ever since. The coastal road is built up, so when we see a campsite we stop. Here we meet another cyclist, Stefan, camped on a low terrace by the seashore. We join him. Although the road is busy with trucks, down here by the sea all we can hear are the waves lapping the pebble beach. We can look across at the big mountains we’ve just crossed and feel happily worn out.